Olympic gold medalist Joss Christensen talks injuries, the Russia doping scandal and more.
Joss Christensen made history at the 2014 Games in Sochi, winning the first Olympic gold medal in men's slopestyle skiing. During his career, Christensen has also won an X Games silver medal in 2015 and won the U.S. Grand Prix three times.
Christensen has had a slew of injuries since Sochi, including a broken hand, a broken wrist, another broken hand, a knee injury and a separated collarbone. Most recently, he tore his ACL and meniscus, plus sprained his MCL in May. He hit the slopes at the end of November for the first time in six months.
Sports Illustrated caught up with Christensen in mid-November and again in early December to chat about his injuries and the quest to retain his title. Christensen is sitting out the first Olympic qualifier in Breckenridge this week in order to give his surgically repaired knee more time to heal.
(Editor's Note: The following interview was lightly edited and condensed).
Sports Illustrated: How does it feel to be coming up on your second Olympics? Where were you mentally the first time around versus where are you now?
Joss Christensen: It’s crazy it’s been four years already. I don’t feel like I’m getting old, but I’m four years older than I was the last Olympics. Coming to the last Olympics, I didn’t really have any expectations on making the Olympic team. So for me this time around, I think I’m putting a lot more pressure on myself, but I’m not allowing my sponsors or the ski team to dictate that pressure necessarily. But it’s fun. I think I feel more confident and at the same time a lot more nervous. I’m excited to see what happens and hopefully make my second Olympic team.
SI: You were recently named to Ice Breakers' "Team Unicorn," a roster of athletes inspiring fans to share their #UnicornMoment, a life-changing achievement sparked by finding inner confidence. How does the campaign resonate with you?
JC: Everything Team Unicorn stands for is very relatable to my story, especially coming to last Olympics, when I was the underdog. I didn't really have any expectations of making the team, but I was able to dig deep inside and find my inner unicorn and make things I thought were impossible happen. I just want to share my experience, especially coming into this next Olympics as I've put myself in quite the situation with my injury. I hope my fans can share their experiences with me and everyone else.
SI: How is your body feeling heading into this next Olympic cycle? Are you 100%?
JC: I'd say I'm feeling about 92, 93% right now. I think in these next couple weeks I'll make it back to 100%. I just need to take it slow as I start skiing again. I'm sitting out the first Olympic qualifier to give myself more time to ski and just get back to where I left off last spring, before I hurt my knee. Tomorrow will be seven months out of surgery, and I've been skiing for two weeks. My goal is to be back for the last four qualifiers in January, and at that point I'll be more than healed, ready to go. I just gotta separate myself from the rest of the pack and focus on what I need to focus on so I can come out swinging in January.
SI: What went through your mind when you fell and tore up your knee? You had already dealt with a bunch of injuries throughout your career, and then to suffer such a serious one that close to the Olympics is brutal.
JC: I felt a huge explosion in my knee, so I knew. I'd heard from a bunch of different skiers that you hear a very distinctive pop, or you feel one. I was listening to music so I didn't hear anything, but I felt it. I pretty much watched my knee twist about 90 degrees, so I knew.
The first thing I thought was whether I'd be able to go in the Olympics. I started counting dates, counting months to see how long I'd be out for, accounting for the average six months recovery time from an ACL tear. My first thought was getting surgery as quick as possible. There was a lot of doubt about whether I'd be able to come back, but I have such a great support system with USA Skiing.
SI: Are you nervous? How are you balancing that fear of reinjury versus just trying to compete?
JC: You can get hurt walking to the chairlift in the morning. I think you can tear your ACL (there) so I try not to think about injuries ever. I’m pretty confident that I’m going to be able to get back on snow and feel really good and feel strong. I think I was really nervous a couple months ago that I didn’t want to hurt myself again. But at this point, I feel stronger than I really have ever been, and I just need to work my way into it. The thought of reinjury is nowhere near close to my mind. I fully killed that thought a couple months ago 'cause if it happens, it happens and there’s no foolproof way of preventing it.
SI: Was there a particular moment where you were like “I can’t think like this anymore?”
JC: Yeah, I was having a lot of troubles with my rehab. It seemed like I probably wasn’t going to be able to ski when I wanted to, but then everything started looking better for me. My knee decided to win the battle against this injury. At that point, once everything started getting better and better, I just got all the negative thoughts out of my brain and I felt like that just helped me get through all the down time I’ve had and rehab that much better. I was pretty down and bummed out for a while there, and I definitely don’t think that was helping my body heal.
CC: Along those lines, what keeps you competing through all these injuries?
SI: Inside I’m a competitive person, and I love skiing. And if I can mix the two together, that’s great. I just love skiing so much and it’s a great way to hang out with my friends and travel the world with ski competitions. It’s a fun challenge to always challenge myself to see how I can adapt to new slopestyle courses. Even though I’ve had quite a few injuries, that’s kind of all I really know in life at this point — traveling the world and trying to win as many competitions as I can each season. It’s just kind of all I know at this point, and I’m going to keep doing it until I can’t. It’s always been my goal since I was 12 years old and at this point, I’ve been competing for 14 years and hopefully I can do another four or six years.
CC: I have to ask you your thoughts on the Russia doping scandal.
SI: Personally, it doesn't change much because Russia isn't too relevant in our sport. No one likes a cheater. I feel bad for some of the athletes who are maybe forced into doping through the Russian government and the sports programs. I'm happy the IOC made the right decision. It's so tough for an athlete who works so hard to finish second to someone who was cheating the whole time.
It's crazy. I've been watching a bunch of documentaries and movies about the scandal, especially the Netflix one Icarus. The thing that scares me is they could have tampered urine samples such as mine. I know they weren't doing that, but that's what made me most angry is they could have screwed with mine.
CC: What would 12-year-old you think of where you are now?
SI: If you told me when I was 12 I would have won the Olympics and was one of the top slopestyle skiers in the world, I would have said you’re crazy. It was such a big dream at that point; I just focused on skiing every single day and my parents let me go to sports school. It’s just so crazy that four years ago, I was about to throw in the towel and go back to school because I wasn’t able to support myself through skiing and now the Olympics just completely change my career. It was the catalyst to get me where I’m at today and continue my love for competition skiing. It was a bummer that I was thinking of stopping; it was just so hard to support myself. I knew I needed to do school if I wasn’t skiing, the fact that everything went so well at the Olympics for me was just so amazing that I’m still able to do this today.
CC: How have you adjusted to life in the spotlight after winning gold?
SI: It was pretty crazy how quick my life changed after wining gold at the Olympics. I hadn’t really been in front of any cameras or that much media at all, so that was a whirlwind right after. There are a lot more eyes on me now and I just need to be a lot more careful about everything I do. We’re role models now and I feel like I’ve got a lot of influence on the younger skiers coming up, and I want to make sure I’m doing the right things and not coming off as a bad person. I know that a lot of people are watching everything I do. I like the pressure of knowing I can get in trouble for making mistakes, it keeps me in line. It’s just been fun, I’ve tried to be more of an athlete than ever before, just eating well and taking care of my body.
CC: Anything specific you did or ate in that recovery process that really stuck out for you?
SI: I just tried to make sure that my protein intake was good this summer because I needed to build as much muscle as possible so for me, during my workout before, after and throughout the day usually what helped me was just a glass of milk. I know I can get a large amount of protein very fast whether that’s straight milk or mixing it with a smoothie. Early in the morning, I have a lot of trouble eating, so being able to get protein and nutrients I need to build muscle, milk has been a huge help for me. I like the taste too. I like creamy things. That helped me out a lot because I had a very short timeline to get back to the shape I was in before my injury, which was the strongest I’ve ever been. The fact that I can say I’m stronger than before I was hurt is crazy and I was able to do it in six months. I’d say my diet was a huge part of that.